For many, rangeland represents a tough, unresponsive “thing” that resists use and abuse with unlimited regeneration potential. Good cattlemen know that the actual restoration potential of rangeland and pasture is limited. Preservation and rejuvenation of rangeland must be carefully managed. Soil and grass health is an earmark for the cattle industry and a vital signal for its sustainability. The old idiom that we must manage for what’s wanted, not for what isn’t wanted, rings true. To leave land in better condition than what we inherited is a call that cannot be ignored. Grass made the industry and the industry will crash in its absence.
In spite of much research and knowledge about good grazing practices, Burke Teichert, an author and blogger with Beef Magazine, says we’re still losing topsoil at an alarming rate. How do we stem the loss? Teichert’s management priorities include:
- Reduce overheads — until it hurts. On most ranches, nothing changes profitability faster.
- Calve at the right time of year — never in winter. In most situations, calve in sync with nature, meaning that you arrange calving and rebreeding to fit the time of year when quantity and quality of grazable forage is at its best.
- Adjust cow size and milk production and let nature and the bulls select cows that fit the environment — highly fertile, trouble free and low maintenance.
- Begin the process of planning and developing grazing management practices that will greatly improve soil health and pasture productivity — leading to improvements in stocking rate.
Adapting grazing plans on an individual ranch requires consideration of typical climatic conditions and the yearly variances that occur. Condition of the land and the plants on it need to be assessed. A professional range scientist is often needed to do this properly. The health and condition of the cow herd becomes an important consideration, as do the seasons in relationship to calving, breeding and weaning. Short- and long-term ranch objectives are factored in.
“Adaptive” implies that grazing is always planned and time-controlled. The timing of use for each paddock, length of the graze period, and, more importantly, the length of the recovery period all become components of the plan. Good grazing may be high density and almost always low frequency — “high density” meaning a high number of livestock on a small piece of land. This usually comes along later as grazing infrastructure and skills are developed. “Low frequency” means not returning to the same place very often. This relates to recovery time, which is tied to the expected growth rates of the grazed plants.
Grazing terminology and chatter are not uniform. Watching across the fence, attending ranch tours or pasture walks where good grazing is practiced are invaluable. Seeing is believing.
Most farmers and ranchers would not intentionally harm their land. Almost all producers profess an intent to leave the land better than they found it, yet many ranches continue to lose soil at a rapid rate. Tons of soil enters rivers and creeks. There are still dirt banks created by wind reminiscent of Dust Bowl days. With few exceptions, cattle producers are not considered good stewards. Many stand ineffective while resources beneath their feet continue to degrade.
Teichert quotes Gabe Brown, one of the pioneers of the current soil health movement associated with regenerating soil and plant resources. “When people talk of sustainability, why do we want to sustain a degraded resource?” He strongly encourages the cattle industry to engage in “regenerative” agriculture.
Good management practices, simple by definition, are often squandered. Things like:
- Delaying spring grazing until plants are ready.
- Setting stocking rates to the average level of forage expected, with adjustment for the present year.
- Providing plant rest periods and grazing forage at appropriate stages.
- Managing pasture fertility.
- Using annuals and winter annuals.
- Selecting forage species adapted to geographic location.
- Carefully managing grazing of riparian areas.
- Distributing livestock evenly.
- Ensuring all these practices work together by developing and using a grazing plan.
Only a few of many North American ranchers use some form of rotational grazing in place of season-long continuous grazing. And some who do, rotate from low country to high country and back in the same pattern, every year. Others rotate from the calving pasture to the breeding pasture to the preconditioning pasture to the weaning pasture to the early winter pasture to the feeding pasture. They follow the same rotation on the same schedule every year. In the view of many range scientists, these practices do not constitute good grazing. In spite of the small number of producers practicing good grazing methods, the actual number of good graziers is growing rapidly.
Grazing cattle is an integral part of the grassland ecosystem and play an important role in nutrient recycling. Pasture represents an important store of carbon and provides habitat to many species at risk. Pastures preserve wetlands that otherwise may be subject to cultivation. As with any food production system, there is an environmental footprint associated with beef production and that story needs to be told in a straightforward and responsible fashion.
It is never too late to learn. Broad understanding of ecosystem processes is a common deficit. The science behind water cycles, mineral cycles, sunlight energy flow and their application can be learned. Familiarity with the impact of the time and timing of grazing events and impact of stocking density on the land has to be understood. There are a growing number of livestock producers who have doubled carrying capacity and stocking rates using improved grazing practices. They learned from each other and are striving to continually improve the soil, plant community and the livestock.
Good graziers have learned that everything they, their machines, their chemicals, animals, and fire do on the soil surface has a positive or negative effect on the soil, the plants, the insects, the birds, the small and large animals, and even themselves. You can’t affect one without affecting them all.
Dr. Ron Clarke is a consulting veterinarian living in Alberta.